Why It Matters

Getting to root of diabetes issue

To beat a disease, you need to first understand it.

That is why a study by local researchers which uncovered why Asians might be more prone to developing Type 2 diabetes than their Western counterparts is a significant step forward for Singapore's war against diabetes.

Patients develop Type 2 diabetes, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to break down sugars in the bloodstream, or because the body does not respond to insulin effectively - a condition called insulin resistance.

A study of 140 mostly Chinese participants found that Asians were more prone to this type of diabetes because they could not produce enough insulin, and not because they were insulin-resistant.

Insulin resistance is associated with weight gain - where a person becomes more resistant to the effects of insulin as he gains weight. This study found that insulin resistance between pre-diabetics and healthy volunteers was insignificant.

However, when it came to producing insulin, healthy volunteers had a greater ability to secrete it.

The researchers noted that more participants, and races, will be needed for the results to be applied to the general population. But the study has already given us some takeaways.

First, Singaporeans cannot afford to be overweight. "The more weight we put on, the more insulin we need to keep our blood sugar level normal, and we can't seem to keep up with that," said the study's lead researcher, Dr Toh Sue-Anne from the National University Hospital.

Second, Singaporeans should avoid too much of foods that release high amounts of glucose when broken down by the body, such as white rice and white bread, which could further stress the pancreas.

Third, the results would suggest that therapies that target insulin secretion and the ability to make more insulin could be more effective here.

In a country where one in three has a lifetime risk of developing the disease, the findings could pave the way for tailored dietary advice and a better selection of drugs to treat or keep the disease at bay.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Getting to root of diabetes issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe